Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Benjamin Britten - Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge - Matinees Musicales - Soirees Musicales - English Chamber Orchestra - Sir Alexander Gibson - EMI/Classics For Pleasure

This is one of my favorite Britten discs (especially for this version of "Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge") and it's also one of the first Britten recordings I ever bought. Sir Alexander Gibson and the English Chamber Orchestra simply do Britten's music proud.

A major influence on Britten's musical personality as a youth was Frank Bridge (1879-1941), a composer of distinction as well, particularly in chamber music. Britten was 12 years old when he began to learn the craft of composition from Bridge, and he continued to study regularly with him until he entered the Royal College of Music. So well was Britten schooled in his apprenticeship, that when he was invited to compose a new work for the Boyd Neel Orchestra to play at the 1937 Salzburg Festival, he responded with the "Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge" Op. 10, fully sketched out in but 10 days. Within four weeks time the work was fully scored for strings, a rather remarkable feat imo as it's a work in which the resources of the string orchestra were exploited with a daring and invention infrequently known at the time; indeed it remains one of the landmarks of British string composition. Britten was 24 when he composed the Variations, and not widely known apart from his Cantata "Our Hunting Fathers". When the Variations were duly performed at Salzburg they caused something of a sensation, became Britten's first popular success and laid the basis for his international reputation. Incidentally, the theme that Britten chose was from the second of Bridge's "Three Idylls" for string quartet, a very fine piece on it's own.

The Variations open with a brilliant flourish as a call to attention, and Bridge's innocent, waltz-like theme is first heard played by a solo violin, as if ruminating on its possibilities. which are then quickly signaled by a more elaborate version for all the violins together. The double-basses ease the music firmly into Variation I, Adagio, where the lower strings play chorale-like chords while the violins make references to the theme. It is transformed into a March for Variation II, growing from soft beginnings to a tense climax and then retreating again. Quietly and somewhat hesitantly, it steps into the Romance of Variation III, and the theme played pizzicato in the bass then encourages the violins to lyrical song. This dissolves in turn into a diverting parody of Rossini in Variation IV, Aria Italiana, the first violins having a florid melody while the other players are instructed to strum their accompaniment "quasi chitarra", and all become suitably hushed when the music turns into the minor halfway through.  The parody is at the expense of classical France in the lively but decorous Variation V, Bourree Classique, and of Vienna in the Wiener Walzer of Variation VI, which affectionately mocks the stock-in-trade of Viennese waltz composers as well as a characteristic of Mahler. Next follows the Moto Perpetuo Variation VII, a display of virtuoso string writing in the tremolo figures which range from top to bottom of the instrumental register, and Variation VIII, Funeral March, is vividly impressionistic (anyone else notice the "Simple Symphony" forecasted quite a bit at the beginning of this variation?). Even the illusion of muffled drums is suggested, and glissando figures give an effect of funeral wailing. A more intimate mood is expressed as muted violas in three parts sustain the the Chant, Variation IX, against a background of string harmonics and high pizzicato phrases. Variation X, Fugue and Finale, demonstrates Britten's contrapuntal skill in developing a fugue subject. At the point of greatest intensity the Frank Bridge theme is added, played in unison by a solo string quartet, then taken up in a richly-harmonized peroration by the whole ensemble before being rounded-off with a brief coda. To sum up, a G-E-M.

Both "Matinees Musicales" Op.24 and "Soirees Musicales" Op. 9 are Suites, ingenious arrangements by Britten of songs and dances by Rossini (1792-1868), who himself published an album of short vocal pieces (songs and duets) under the title Soirees musicales in 1835, six years after his last opera, "William Tell". Britten uses six of them (3 in each suite) as part of the material, and the same album was the basis of Respighi's orchestrations for the Massine ballet, "La Boutique Fantasque" (1919).

Having displayed the virtuosity of a string ensemble in the Bridge Variations, Britten calls on a wider palette of instrumental color for the two Rossini suites. They are scored for double woodwind, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, percussion and harp in addition to strings, with the ad lib. addition of a xylophone in the "Soirees...", and of a celesta and other percussion in the "Matinees...". Each of the Suites begin with a march, and the source of these is the ballet music in "William Tell" (Acts I and III). Then three items follow in both suites frpm Rossini's vocal album. The two final numbers have a different provenance. The 'Moto perpetuo' of "Matinees..." was concocted from a volume of Rossini's vocal exercises, purely technical and not so simple, and the 'Tarantella' of "Soirees..." came from 'La carita', a sacred part-song for women's voices, which Britten remembered his mother singing to him as a child.

Track listing:

Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10

1)Introduction & Theme (1:44)
2)Adagio (2:27)
3)March (1:06)
4)Romance (1:31)
5)Aria Italiana (1:14)
6)Bourree Classique (1:27)
7)Wiener Walzer (2:44)
8) Moto Perpetuo (1:07)
9)Funeral March (3:04)
10)Chant (1:28)
11)Fugue & Finale (6:57)

Matinees Musicales, Op. 24

12)March (2:48)
13)Nocturne (4:30)
14)Waltz (1:56)
15)Pantomime (3:35)
16)Moto Perpetuo (2:47)

Soirees Musicales, Op. 9

17)March (1:30)
18)Canzonetta (3:02)
19)Tirolese (2:05)
20)Bolero (2:05)
21)Tarantella (2:11)

*I just noticed that the file has a space after the "dot" before the zip extension. If it won't open for you, simply delete the space so it is ".zip" instead of " . zip" This shouldn't matter but PCs are wonky!


Britten_Variations_on_a_Theme_of_Frank_Bridge_etc._Tzadik .zip



Karel said...

Thank you what a great recording!

Tzadik said...

Karel you are welcome, and I agree!! Thank you for commenting. TZ